Home Travelogue THE LAND WHERE MONASTICISM WAS BORN

THE LAND WHERE MONASTICISM WAS BORN

A mystical journey in the Red Sea
Hidden deep in the Eastern Desert mountain range, at around 200 km. north of Hurghada, and very close to the skies, seventy Coptic monks still observe rituals that have hardly changed in sixteen centuries.
   
Their life revolves around the silent repetition of timeless tasks. Five churches, a library with hundreds of manuscripts, a mill, a well, a bakery and an orchard are the heart of their meditative lives. The monastery where they live, Deir Mar Antonios, is the oldest active monastery in the world. On a cliff

nearby, a cave at 680 m. of altitude is object of devotion and inspiration. It is the cave where St. Anthony the Great, in the obscure remote IV century AC, retreated to pursue an isolated ascetic life, in a life-long quest of communion with the Lord.

Only two hundred years before St. Mark Evangelist decided to settle in Alexandria, to spread the word of Jesus. Christianity was welcomed in the Egypt of the first millennium. The country was under the rule of the Roman Empire. The new gospel spoke to the hearts of people who for the first time in their history were under a foreign rule. And it spread rapidly, ina country that has a flair for the mystical and ultramundane. But Christianity became legal only in the IV century AC, when Constantine, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, converted to the new religion. Before him, Christians were persecuted and severely punished also in Egypt - not only by the Imperial government, but also by the nomad tribes who dwelt in the desert.

Antonios, son of a wealthy family from the Nile Valley, born in 251 AC in the town of Coma near Heracleopolis, embraced the new religion at an early age.

Tradition wants that he gave away all his possessions after being orphaned at the age of 18, and after listening to the Gospel in which the Lord speaks to the rich young man, "If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor and come follow me." (Matthew 19:21). They were times of heated controversies about divinity matters in the Christian Church. Melkites and Monophysites were having trouble in agreeing upon the divine nature of the unity between Jesus and God.

Complicated and elusive theological subtleties were dividing the Christians. With the schism between Melkites and Monophysites the Coptic Church was founded. But the controversial climate of these early centuries led also to a new form of devotion. One away from worldly discussions and human disputes.
Antonios took the words from the Gospel of Matthew as a personal invitation addressed to him by God.
Eager to be closer to his Lord, he sold all his possessions, gave the money to the poor and to his sister, and went searching for a richer life.

After a period under the guidance of a holy man living near Coma, learning the principles of spirituality, prayer and fasting, he left on his own to the Eastern Desert. The busy and populous Nile Valley was too worldly, too crowded, too hectic, to establish a deep dialogue with the divine.

Traveling to the remote severe cliffs of the Red Sea Coast was no ordinary feat in the IV century.
But, relying on his God and his faith, he journeyed across wadis and under sand storms, being, as tradition wants, several times tempted by the devil.

He chose a hidden cave high on a rocky cliff to elude the noise, and speak to the angels.
It was these silent, windy, rocky cliffs that witnessed the dawn of monasticism and coenobitism, a new spirituality in the Christian family.

His life in the cliff was acetic, isolated, relying solely on his own skills to collect the very limited produce of the desert and feed himself, in the water of a nearby spring, and in the constant dialogue with God.
A few years after he decided to live in the cliffs, a group of hermits followed his example and moved as well to the area. Initially, it was a very loose kind of community.

The hermits would carry their lives separately, each one in a cave or a by a wadi, and they were only to meet occasionally.

At a certain point, some of the hermits opted for a more communal form of life, still ascetic and devoted to meditation and payer, but one where they could speak about their experiences, converse about the divinity, and share a meal and a prayer. What is believed to be the first monastery in the world, the Monastery of St. Anthony, was founded in AD 356, the year of St.Anthony's death, close to the cave where the saint lived and died.

A monk called Paul belonged to this first coenobium, and is considered the first Christian ascetic hermit.
   
History isn't clear in establishing whether it was Paul who followed Anthony in his ascetic life, or vice versa.
He lived certainly in another cave in the cliffs for eighty-five years, at some 45 km. from St. Anthony.
And St. Paul of Thebes is now revered as one of Egypt's greatest saints and anchorites. Close to his cave the Monastery that carries his name was built in the V century AC.

The Monastery of St. Paul, or Deir Anba Bula, lies in an impressive natural amphitheatre very close to the shores of the Red Sea.

It was from these primitive communities of the Eastern Desert that the monasticism became in the Red Sea, and then in the world, a spiritual and social phenomenon, giving birth in the subsequent centuries to a number of other monasteries, which can still be visited and admired today, and spreading later also to other desert areas, as Wadi Natrun, in the northwest of Egypt.

In the Red Sea, the monastic movement founded the Monastery of the Seven Girls, one of the earliest Christian centres in Sinai. Situated about halfway between the Monastery of St. Catherine and the Gulf of Suez, it was built in the IV century, in the middle of a palm-tree oasis.

It belongs to a group of many others all to be found in Feiran, South Sinai's largest oasis. The ruins of these churches testify to the importance this oasis held as a religious hub from as early as the II century.

Near the monastery are the ruins of what was the Archbishop's of Sinai seat until the VI century.
Finally, the most famous monastery of the Red Sea is the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai, founded by Emperor Justinianus in the VI century AC. Declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Monument, it is visited every year by thousand of visitors, inspired by the mystical presence of the mountains and desert which surrounds the religious centre, and by the invaluable art treasures preserved in its library and churches.

The Monasteries of St. Paul and St. Anthony, rich in history, art and spirituality, can be easily visited in a day's trip from Hurghada.

Some tour operators offer excursions to these suggestive sites, but they can be visited also by renting a car or a taxi for the day.

The resident monks will be more than happy to act as guides.

A great way to take in the spirit of the places is spending a couple of days there, sleeping in their guesthouse.

The impressive St. Catherine can be visited easily from Sharm el Sheikh, but it is also possible to visit it in a day from Hurghada by taking the fast ferry in the early morning, or via an organized tour by your travel agent.
All Coptic monasteries are closed to visitors during Coptic feasts, so it is advisable to contact in advance the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo for details.

 

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